I feel like recently I’ve been posting a lot of negative stuff on this website, you know? When I take a step back, I notice I’ve really been laying it on thick with the insults and the edgy punchlines, criticizing the choices of people whose lives I really don’t know anything about. I mean, all any of us really know about the people I shit on in this blog is the stuff we read online and that’s not very conducive to crafting a nuanced and empathetic understanding of the human condition — which, as I think is pretty obvious by now, is the purpose of my writing. Obviously.
My mother always told me that empathy is the key to a happy life. Looking at something from another person’s perspective and understanding why they feel the way they feel, think the way they think, or act the way they act is the best way to forge the connections we need to get us through this nightmare of an existence. She might have put it differently, I’m paraphrasing.
Regardless, my mother’s wise words, or rather her wise general thesis, is the inspiration for the series of scenarios I’d like to start us off with today. This will be an exercise in empathy, so I want you all to forget your real lives for a moment. Forget your troubles, forget your values and beliefs, forget the fact that Kanye definitely probably maybe hasn’t been having rich person ranch sex with Jeffree Star, okay, forget all of that because those things belong to you, and you aren’t important right now.
For our first scenario, I want you to close your eyes. Fuck I didn’t think that through, you can open them again. Okay, in your mind’s eye, I want you to imagine that your name is Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubiay. You are 19 years old and you live in Baghdad, Iraq. It’s September 16, 2007, about four and a half years since coalition forces from the US, UK, Australia, and Poland invaded the country and toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. Things have been difficult since; insurgent attacks on occupying forces began almost as soon as Baghdad fell in April, 2003, and the city has become a hotspot for the fighting.
But you’ve been doing okay, keeping your head down, learning how to drive through the now chaotic streets, and focusing on your studies — you want to become a doctor. Today, your mother has asked you to drive her to an appointment. Around noon, you climb into the driver’s seat of your white Kia sedan and you and your mother head out. The errand takes you to Nisour Square, on the edge of the heavily fortified seat of the newly imposed government known as the Green Zone. As you approach the roundabout from the South, you notice a coalition convoy enter the square and start to close off the southern entry.
The convoy belongs to a private military corporation called Blackwater, which had been providing security services for the U.S. in the area. A little bit earlier, a car bomb exploded outside of a meeting that included State department officials and another Blackwater team was escorting them back to the Green Zone. The convoy in Nisour Square, called Raven 23, was securing the roads for the evacuation. You continue to try to make your way through the resulting traffic jam, but you start to panic in the chaos and you move to the wrong side of the road, missing the traffic cop urgently telling you to stop. Then, abruptly, Blackwater guard Nicholas Slatten shoots you in the fucking head with a sniper rifle.
Three other Blackwater guards open fire with machine guns and grenade launchers, killing your mother in the passenger seat, the traffic cop, and 14 other civilians — among them two boys, ages 9 and 11. Now, how does that make you feel? That’s a true story by the way, based on the official FBI report of the incident, though competing accounts of the events do exist, yadda yadda, you can Google it.
Let’s do another empathy exercise. This one should be easier, it’s a little closer to home. Your name is Heather Heyer, and you are a 32 year-old paralegal and bartender working in Charlottesville, Virginia, about a half hour drive from where you grew up. It’s August 12, 2017, a few years after you started work as a paralegal with only your high school diploma; a manager at a local bankruptcy law firm, Alfred A. Wilson, had hired you on a recommendation. You work hard and have made good fast friends with your colleagues. When your boyfriend made a racist remark about Wilson, who is black, you dumped his ass hard and you now live alone with your Chihuahua, Violet.
You heard that a white supremacist rally called ‘Unite the Right’ was coming to town to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a racist icon. Some of the rally attendants were armed and the implicit threat of violence hung in the air, which is why you and your friend Justin Marks had decided not to go out and join the counter-protest. But last night, you changed your mind. What these racists believed in wasn’t right and so you made your mind up last night that you would show up today and stand up for what you believed in. That’s why you and your friend from work, Melissa Blair, are with a group of counter-protesters a few blocks away from the Lee statue, exercising your First Amendment rights in the early afternoon sun. That is until James Alex Fields Jr, a Neo-Nazi and very soon-to-be domestic terrorist from Ohio hits you at speed with his fucking car. You are killed and 35 are injured. How does that one make you feel?
Okay, last one, I think we’re really getting some good empathy going here, let’s finish strong. This time your name is Anthony Huber. You’re a 26 year-old skateboarder from Kenosha, known locally for your infectious sense of humour. Your friends describe you as a good dad to your girlfriend, Hannah Gittings’ daughter, and a gnarly skater. Today is August 25, 2020, exactly four months after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, killing him. That was when the country was set on fire — protests against systemic racism and police killings of black people erupted in nearly every major city in America and what felt like the world, and they have shown few signs of slowing down.
You aren’t known to be particularly political but you can tell when it’s time to get on the right side of history and so you’ve been regularly attending protests organized in your home town of Kenosha, Wisconsin. The protests, up until recently, had been in solidarity with protests against police killings of black people elsewhere in the country, but two days ago, Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back in front of his three kids, paralyzing him from the waist down. It had become personal.
Protests turned to riots, and fires, looting, and vandalism have plagued the city for the past two nights in a row. You and your girlfriend have continued to show up, skateboard in tow, calling for long overdue change to a system that violently enforces white supremacy. Suddenly, through a crowd of protesters, you notice 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse, armed with a rifle. Shoving your girlfriend aside, you rush toward the gunman along with several other protesters, one of whom knocks him to the ground. Another delivers a swift kick to the prone teenage vigilante from Ohio, before ducking out of the way of two rifle shots. You attempt to grab the firearm, hitting Rittenhouse in the shoulder with your board while wrestling for control. He then shoots you in the heart.
Rittenhouse had shot and killed another protester, 36 year-old Joseph Rosenbaum, moments earlier and later wounded a third, Gaige Grosskreutz, who was armed with a handgun. Rittenhouse walked away from Grossenkreutz with hands raised toward police on the scene, who ignored him. He was arrested later without incident. I’m just gonna go out on a limb at this point and guess that that one made you feel pretty shitty.
So now that we’ve properly warmed up our empathy, let’s do one final exercise. This is for all the marbles. How do you think it felt for the families of the victims of the Nisour Square massacre when Donald Trump pardoned Nicholas Slatten and the three other Blackwater guards responsible for the deaths of their loved ones? How do you think it felt when he said that the veterans had been unfairly treated?
And how do you think it felt when Heather Heyer’s mother heard the president condemn violence “on both sides” of the protest that killed her daughter. Or what about when Hannah Gittings, Anthony Huber’s girlfriend, read online that the kid who murdered her boyfriend was being honoured at a Proud Boys rally in Oregon, that people were celebrating his death and saying that he was a rapist? How do you think Ms. Gittings felt when, two days later, Donald Trump went on national television and refused to condemn those same men and instead told them to “stand by and stand back?”
How do you think it felt for the families of the victims of white trigger-happy war criminals, Nazis, police officers, and vigilantes and militiamen, who craved violence so much that they had to create it for themselves to watch as self-proclaimed insurrectionists embodying everything that their family’s killers stand for successfully stormed the seat of the most powerful government in history, with little resistance? How do you think it felt when the president told the perpetrators of what was a literal (although, I admit, also a poorly orchestrated) coup attempt that he "loves" them? When those family members checked their phones and saw that the Defense department denied multiple requests to send in the national guard? When they went on Twitter and saw the security guards taking selfies with the intruders contrasted with the images of the Capitol from the DC BLM protests
It’s obvious to anyone who was conscious both during this past summer and on Wednesday that melanin made the difference in that siege. But it’s also obvious that Donald Trump has a type. The type willing to take the fastest route to violence possible, the type that values property over the lives of non-white people, the type that would rather construct an entire parallel universe in which the lives of those with opposing worldviews are worth less than those who agree, and the type that will continue to worship him and his borderline encouragement of their violence long after he’s gone. Also, just white dudes with small dicks, let’s be honest.